Bristol shows actions speak louder than words

A version of this article was published in Bristol 24/7 on 11 June. Thanks to Martin Booth and the team for the opportunity to provide some thoughts on an extraordinary week for a city we are proud to be part of.

I’m not from Bristol but have grown to love it over the decade I’ve worked here. I love the city for its creativity, positive outlook and for how it does things its own way, rightly or wrongly.

Bristol’s idiosyncratic streak is part of what makes it such a special place, for all its foibles. Its failure to adequately address questions over its history with regards to figures like Edward Colston sit uneasily with its image as a diverse, multicultural city.

This uneasiness collided with direct action on Sunday, when Colston’s statue was toppled from its plinth and dumped in the Floating Harbour, where it’s remained until it was retrieved on Thursday.

I know from my work for the government and with other organisations in the city that reflecting Bristol’s past in the ‘here and now’ has been discussed over many years. After all that talking, Bristol has demonstrated that actions will speak louder than words.

Further discussions about the statue’s future and what will replace it are already happening. Having paved the way for the UK’s first Race Relations Act in 1965, it’s no surprise that an online petition is gathering momentum for a statue of civil rights activist Paul Stephenson to replace Colston. There will be other figures who define the city’s rebellious streak who will also be fine contenders.

These are important discussions to have. But they should be part of a wider, longer-term and more fulsome conversation about how Bristol sees itself and what sort of city it wants to be.

Properly understanding the past is a key part of that. Understanding communities today and enabling them to participate in discussions that shape their futures is equally important, in my view.

Responding to the ‘here and now’

The way city leaders responded to Sunday’s events – with empathy and understanding – stood in stark contrast to those of national politicians who were quick to criticise protesters’ ‘thuggery’. A police investigation into what happened will follow. But those who understand the city know that this issue can’t be addressed by a quick soundbite.

Listening to Marvin Rees’ measured response across the media, and Supt Andy Bennett explain his orders to officers to refrain from guarding the statue during the protest (below), was testament to this approach in action.

Marvin Rees interviewed on Channel 4 news on 7 June

Whatever one’s view on whether protesters were right to remove the statue, we can but hope that this signals an opportunity to move forward positively as a city.   

When the hashtags subside, that hard work continues.

Defining the ‘new normal’

Now the protests have ended, and the focus on COVID-recovery remains front and centre for city leaders and everyone else, the key issues facing Bristol remain the same as they were before lockdown.

Affordable housing, sustainable, reliable transport and access to decent career opportunities remain out-of-reach for too many people. Climate change, health and wellbeing surround all of those issues.

Involving communities in a conversation about how to respond to these issues remains a challenge. But having those discussions – about how we live, work, travel and buy things – and then acting on them will bring better outcomes in the long-run.

I’m hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction, even if the journey won’t be in a straight line.

The future is hard to predict, but last weekend’s events prove that while it’s good to talk, organisations that back up their words with action will be judged more favourably than those who speak and do nothing.

Now is the time for those organisations to make their voices heard.

Photo by Keir Gravil